Slouching Toward Bethlehem – 4/5 Stars
Turns out that I think that Joan Didion’s essays are much stronger than her novels. I think this will remain a consistency as I read more of each of these works and come to a better understanding about them. This collection, from the mid-1960s traces both American history of this time-period (in a kind of anthropological and political way) and Joan Didion’s own personal history (in a kind of cultural history). We get essays on local civic campaigns to bar Joan Baez and her followers from setting up shop in a California county, essays about hippies, about music, about drugs, about war and violence, about activism — and then we get essays from Joan Didion’s own attempts to decide between the staid (and stale?) East coast life in New York and her move to California that opens up opportunities, spaces, and weirdness (she and her husband were trying to become screenwriters, don’t forget, which they were able to do, with middling success). There’s a funny moment in a grocery store where the 30 or so year old Didion is wearing a bikini into Ralph’s out of a kind contingency when she is followed around the store by a busybody conservative woman demanding explanation for her apparel choice. I think one of the strengths here is to center herself (with a heavy dose of false modesty) at the center of a story, allow thinking and ideas to unfold around this positioning, in order to better and more thoroughly conceive of ways of thinking on it. It’s a successful and much-copied technique that she more or less invents and perfects (and watching the internet do its thing these days is to often watch less talented writers fail at this technique).
Salvador – 3/5
A short book or a long reportage on the Salvadoran civil war from the late 70s and early 80s. The book begins with a long quotation from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in order to provide a sense of the perspective view point (and one that doesn’t quite fit — it’s hard to take the racism and slavery of Heart of Darkness and neatly apply it to Central American spaces). It’s a book about the ravages of American Exceptionalism and American Frontier foreign policy, and about trying to look at the specific on the ground consequences. As a book about war and about bearing witness, especially to US intevention and violence (and especially during Reagan’s 80s — though this book begins in the Carter administration) is solid and brave — but it’s hard to see Joan Didion as anything but a very conscientious (and centered) voice. By this I mean, her presence is so heavy in this book and it’s hard to separate this out as a book about war from a Joan Didion book about war.
The Last Thing He Wanted 1/5 Stars –
I’ve read one Joan Didion novel previous to this one, her 1986 book Democracy which I thought was fine, not great by any means, but serviceable. This book however I found awful. From the very first sentence I was on guard about it. We begin with this kind of arm’s length narration of the story of a Washington insider — a high level campaign staffer — quitting her job in order to work with her famous father. This leads to Central America, searching after some sort of cloak and dagger American figure. Ok all that sounds perfectly fine. But the writing in this book is so embarrassingly bad. It’s deeply affected, full of false panache and style. I guess it’s partly supposed to be poppy and snappy, and maybe it is, but each and every sentence almost is riddled with the kind of noodly style of verbless sentences, repetitions in form but substituting key words, and restating and rephrasing the same ideas over and over to reiterate the point. It’s frustrating to read and could be a perfectly fine audiobook, but it’s not fun or interesting (for me) to read. And of course, it’s contagious. I know that there are a lot of contemporary writers who use Joan Didion as a kind of patron saint, and this kind of syntax and narration is all over the place.
I will show you a chunk of the first page of the book for illustration:
“Some real things have happened lately. For a while we felt rich and then we didn’t. For a while we thougth time was money, find the time and the money comes with it. Make money for example by flying the Concorde. Moving fast. Get the big suite, the multi-line telephones, get room service on one, get the valet on two, premium service, out by nine back by one. Download all data. Uplink Prague, get some conference calls going. Sell Allied Signal, buy Cypress Minerals, works the managment plays. Plug into this news cycle, get the wires raw, nod out on the noise….”
It reads like the worst impulses of Don Delillo, who I already don’t love, and tries to tap into a kind of zeitgeist that feels both temporary and ahistorical at the same time, and had to feel fleeting even as it was happening. And if I am being harsh, it’s because of the gravity the book (and the book jacket) seems to place on the importance of this book. Calling it a moral thriller on par with Graham Greene (who had the wherewithal to separate his work into serious and entertainment work) puts a target on your back.
Play it as It Lays – 3/5 Stars
I feel like this is a book that “started it all” in a lot of ways. It’s a California book, it’s a Hollywood book, it’s an LA wastoid book from the 60s. It’s a kind of fictional companion to the collection of essays Slouching Toward Bethlehem and while that book is often kind of funny and weird, this book is super serious and dreary. That’s not to say that this kind of book can’t be all those and still be good, and this book is good in a handful of ways. It’s a book that’s craving for some ironic distance and ironic perversion. In part, the casual use of racial slurs and especially homophobic slurs, without a clear reason of what purpose they’re serving or what they might say about the person who uses them is rough-going. I don’t think we’re all exactly clear on what to do with casual usage, but in books that are more clear on their purpose it works better or fits more comfortably. This is an uncomfortable book all around. We are dealing with young rich white Hollywood and Hollywood-adjacent people dealing with those issues. It’s the kind of book that bred 1000 copycats from Emma Cline to Sally Rooney to a lot of 90s MFA babies. Again, the book is fine, but there’s something kind of grotesque or vulgar about this kind of dissection with little to no clear irony. Give us a joke please.